Dreaming in Spanish

vanveenjf-1132224-unsplashWhen I was a little girl, my Aunt Kay gave our family a series of books about different countries. I suspect it was a hand-me-down from her daughter who had outgrown them; I got a lot of things that were once my cousin’s.

Each book highlighted key facts about each country: where it was located in the world, its major cities and landmarks, what language the people spoke, how the people dressed, what the landscape looked like, what goods the country was famous for. We had one book each for Switzerland, Holland, France, Italy, and Hawaii, maybe a few others but I remember those five. You can tell the books were a little old because they treated Hawaii  like its own country, which of course it was at one time. However the color pictures and subject matter made the books timeless in a way.

My favorite part of the book was a short glossary or dictionary key words in the language of the country, such as hello, goodbye, please, and thank you. I found it fascinating that there were languages other than English but certain phrases, like those, were universal.

The fact that there were other languages was not a surprise to me, even at the youngest of age. My parents spoke another language at home, their parents’ native tongue, not really Slovak and not really Polish. Many years later, I learned that this dialect had a name, “pono shomu”, that people in the Carpatho-Rusyn region of eastern Europe would understand. I need to track down the reference but I think the literal translation of pono shomu is “what we speak”. I have no idea whether I’m even spelling the language properly. It’s the closest phonetic spelling I could muster.

Carpatho-Rusyns are a people without a country. I am only now starting to learn more about these people, their hardships, and their lack of a national identity.  Andy Warhol is its most famous descendant.

My parents didn’t teach us kids that language. They used this exclusivity to their advantage: when they didn’t want us kids to know what or who they were talking about, they would switch languages right in front of us. They did it constantly with each other and my aunts and uncles.

It had the effect of making me feel like an outsider, someone not part of the club. It’s funny to me how some immigrant families were so proud to be American citizens they completely abandoned their native culture and language to become fully Americans. Others were so proud of their roots, like the Greeks, they taught their children and their children’s children, the native language and kept alive all of the same customs.

In turn, I had no interest in the culture of my people and I still recoil whenever I hear anyone speak Slovak, which happens routinely at church. Funny how my parents, descended from a people without a country of their own, cultivated an environment where they excluded me, their own flesh and blood. They had zero clue the impact it had on me.

I always considered myself a citizen of the world, anyway. Maybe it was the influence of those books so long ago. Maybe it was the “It’s a Small World” album Aunt Kay also gave me, the album I played on endless repeat.

Learning other languages was like playing detective, cracking the code. I remember well the day I learned you could become an interpreter. People actually got paid to translate several languages? That was a dream come true!

My mom operated a beauty shop in the basement of our home. The Mel sisters, Jesse, Dina, and Daisy came weekly to get their hair done, and they were stationed in various seats in the salon. I bounced down the wooden stairs of our house, flung the door open, and proudly announced to my mother and the Mel sisters that I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. I was going to be an interpreter and work for the United Nations!

Mom scoffed at me immediately, “Oh, that’s too hard. You’ll never learn how to do all that!” Jesse and her sisters silently witnessed the exchange.

Defeated, smaller than moments before, I walked back upstairs and never gave it another thought. Not one. I was one obedient little girl alright, doing exactly what I was told to do. I didn’t have the wherewithal to know and value and follow what was intrinsically in my heart, nor did I have an understanding of agency to act on it.

Fast forward to high school, in the early 80s. My school offered two languages: Spanish and Latin. Being the 80s in small town Ohio, I didn’t see what benefit Spanish would ever be to me.

Isn’t that quaint? Isn’t that so stereotypical small town American?

I told myself I would study Latin, since it was the root of so many languages, and used in science, medicine, and law. Surely I would go on to study in one of those fields and it would be useful to me.

That didn’t happen either.

Latin was hard. Harder than I had hoped. Nothing clicked. The construct of the sentences was so, understandably, foreign. I learned a few words but I couldn’t speak it. I hadn’t mastered conjugation of verbs in English let alone in Latin. I have no idea how I passed the class other than Mrs. Schulenberg graded on a massive curve.

Fast forward to 10 years post high school. I was headed to France and England for the first time on vacation, by myself, because I couldn’t find a friend who was interested in making the trip and could afford it. I bought a book to learn a few phrases in French.

The book was marginally helpful to recognize some words but I had no idea if I was pronouncing them correctly. I muddled through. It helped that I spent part of my time visiting with a French woman I had befriended in college. She came to the United States for one semester to study at The Ohio State University as part of her business school program, and we were paired since I too was in the business school and volunteered to serve as a host of sorts to our foreign classmates.

Fast forward to today. It amazes me that things like iPhone apps exist, and among the offerings is one called Duolingo, where you can study other languages for free. The studying is structured like a game, one that is fun to play.

So what am I doing? About 10 days ago I started studying Spanish and French. About 15-20 minutes a day, that’s it. I can do it while I’m waiting. I can hear the pronunciation too. I tried Russian, but the words are written with the Cyrillic alphabet and that just pushed me over the edge so I am tabling it for now. Maybe I’ll have some mental bandwidth to pick it up another time and tackle Italian so I’m ready for that trip when we go in a few years.

My husband’s ancestry is Hawaiian, Japanese, and Chinese. And now he’s learning Hawaiian on Duolingo. My preteen daughter just started learning Mandarin. My teenage son is headed to France this summer as part of a school trip even though he doesn’t know a lick of French, however he’s typically dismissive of suggestions so I doubt he’ll practice before he goes despite me coaching him.

Last night before I fell asleep, I spent some time on my iPad practicing my Spanish. It’s going well. I’m pretty excited that it prompts me to translate a simple English sentence into Spanish which I can do without coaching or hints.

I love words, and it’s been fun to see which ones are similar and different across the few languages I have had exposure to.

The kicker was this: last night, I dreamt I was stuck on a boat in Chicago with people who looked like they might speak Spanish. I didn’t have a cell phone on me, but I realized I could ask them, in Spanish, for a phone or to dial a number for me, and then I recited a phone number I knew in Spanish: “ocho cero cero,”… blah blah blah, “siete cero cero cero”. And I was surprised and utterly delighted, even in my dream, that I knew how to say it.

Maybe the whole dream wasn’t in Spanish, but it’s a start. I’m finally living out the other kind of dream of mine from long ago, one way or another.


Photo by VanveenJF on Unsplash


Silken Threads Through Time

My fascination with other cultures is life long. When I was a little girl, we had an album that I played over and over: Disney’s It’s A Small World: 18 Favorite Folk Songs. I loved hearing each of the songs in the native language and sang along with them. Of course I sang along! I loved to sing. I was always singing as a little girl.

When I was four, we went on a family vacation to Disney World when it opened in Florida in 1971, the only time I remember all six of us going since my oldest sister graduated high school that year and married a couple years after that. The It’s A Small World attraction completely enchanted me. Oh, the costumes were so incredibly beautiful with all the different styles and colors. The children singing that precious song over and over as you go through each room representing a different continent. It’s a visual cornucopia. I MUST visit Small World every time I’m at the Magic Kingdom.

Just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes. As a matter of fact, I cry every single time I ride! And you know why? It’s like a perfect vision of what the world could be if we all got along, and then we enter that final room where everyone is in their costumes but wearing white. I had heard a church story once that everything in heaven is white and gold, so when I see that room, I think we’re in heaven.

Fortunately at home we had a series of timeless books on different countries, duangphorn-wiriya-474291highlighting the food, clothing, landscape, and language of each. It was fascinating to me! I distinctly remember having books that focused on France, Switzerland, Holland, Italy, and just to show the age of the series…Hawaii. I learned how to say hello and a few other words in each language. You see, my parents spoke another language to each other at home, but I didn’t know what it was really. I figured that other languages were spoken in every home, and that this was completely normal.

All this “immersion” in other cultures caused me to announce to my mother at age six or seven that I wanted to learn how to speak multiple languages. She burst into laughter at the notion, and said something about it would take me too long to learn all that and I never would. I remember feeling really sad that one of my first dreams was squashed like a bug. I never seriously considered it again.

Still, the fascination with other cultures held. For whatever reason I was particularly enchanted by France and Spain, and I secretly wished I was French or Spanish. The girls were beautiful, and I wanted to be beautiful. I would ask my parents what we were, hoping they’d confirm my wish, but they gave me confusing answers. My mother would say her mother was from Austria, but nothing about the pierogi and kielbasa that we ate jived with what I learned about Austria which was all Sound of Music, lederhosen, classical music, yodeling, and beer steins. Then mom would say things that made me think we were Hungarian. That made no sense either because the only thing I knew about Hungary was that they ate goulash and we didn’t. Other times, when pressed, she told me her mother was from Galicia, but couldn’t find that on a map anywhere in the pre-internet days. She may as well have told me my Baba, or grandmother, was from Mars.

Then I’d ask my dad and he would say that we were Czechoslovakian. Like I had a clue what that was. Sure, that was a country on my globe, but yeah…it felt like no one knew what it meant to be from Czechoslovakia. As it turns out, that was entirely true. It was a new country, hobbled together after WWI, long after my grandparents had emigrated. No one was actually Czechoslovakian.

See, my parents were first generation Americans who came of age in the Depression, and I was their 20th anniversary surprise. Their parents were born in the 1880s and immigrated to America through Ellis Island from Eastern Europe. Like so many other immigrants, they came here to start over. It wasn’t easy for the Irish, the Italian, and Eastern Europeans as they all came to America around the same time and the primarily white Americans of western European descent looked down upon them. My parents didn’t ask many questions of their own parents about life in Europe, so when I asked questions long after my grandparents passed, my parents didn’t have answers or had answers that didn’t make sense to my young mind, what with the border changes that happened over and over.

All I could make out is that we were a people without a home. And everyone at church was descended from these same people.

My brain works like a puzzle without advance knowledge of what the picture is supposed to be. I have bits here and there that I try to piece together to make sense of who we are, where we’re from, and what our story is. Are there innate talents that run through generations of us? Are there given names that have meaning? What are all of the surnames in our family? And for that matter, what meaning does my maiden name have, exactly, if it has one at all? Is my maiden name really my maiden name? What’s the proper pronunciation? I have cousins who say it one way, and people at church who say it yet another way. That felt CRAZY to me, since it was my own last name…I ought to know how it’s pronounced. What gave anyone the right to say it “wrong”?

My mother died first 30 years ago followed by my father 11 years after that, and with them went whatever stories we could hope to know. In some respects, I’m glad my brain tries to solve puzzles the way it does. Or maybe my brain solves puzzles the way it does because I’ve had a couple of decades of practice doing it to make sense of who we are. Who I am. Either way, I’m glad.

Fast forward to being a mother. My husband is Chinese, Japanese, and Hawaiian, and our kids are insanely proud of that aspect of their heritage. Those cultures are so rich, so fascinating, so STORIED. And my oldest would ask me questions to understand my side of the lineage, and I’d have to tell him I really didn’t know much beyond the village in what is now Slovakia where my paternal grandparents came from. Slovakia. I’ll be honest – it doesn’t have quite the same panache as those other three. I mean, pierogis and kielbasa are killer but uh, Disney hasn’t made any movies about where my ancestors are from.

Yes, I seem to use Disney as a weird cultural benchmark. Just run with it…

But we’re not Slovakian, not really. Slovakia is the just the name of the country now that houses the village where my grandparents are from. It’s a village. These are country folk. Very, very likely peasants once upon a time. When I think about two generational hops from peasant to my solidly upper middle class life today, I am agog with what’s possible in America.

What we really are is Carpatho-Rusyn. Some people say we’re Russian, including my parents at one time, but we’re not. We’re Rusyn, pronounced the same way as Russian, hence the confusion. Other people say Ruthenian. My parents never used that word so it’s not something I have embraced.

Maybe you’re beginning to appreciate why my question about lineage was so difficult for my parents to answer.

Still, it bugs me to not know entirely who I am. I mean, the only claim to fame Carpatho-Rusyns have is Andy Warhol…which is pretty cool as far as artistic roots are concerned. Who knows? Maybe he’s a cousin! I’m pretty sure that’s just wishful thinking on my part. I really want something else to latch onto besides pierogi, kielbasa, vodka, babushkas, and the Orthodox church. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those things, except maybe the babushkas. Never was a fan of the babushkas. I mean, Paris couture on one hand versus a flowered handkerchief you wear on your head and tie under your chin when you’re a wrinkled, little old lady as wide as you are tall? No contest.

A couple of years ago I hopped on Ancestry.com and took one of those DNA tests, hoping that they’d clear up who I am. Seriously, I was hoping for something exotic. Like tell me that on my mother’s side, I’m Greek or African, or French or Spanish after all. My mother was gorgeous with her dark golden brown hair and olive skin tone, and her mother looked more exotic to me even more so.  Tell me where I get my almond shaped eyes? Tell me there is something COOL in my lineage. Tell me who my great grandparents are…as I may never ever know anything more than what we know of those who became Americans.

Around the same time I took the DNA test, my husband and I took the kids to Hawaii for the first time, to show them where their grandmother is from. We went to my mother-in-law’s hometown Laie and visited its cemetery. As we stood at the grave of one of her relatives, I told my oldest with tears in my eyes, in pure astonishment of my own not to mention more than a tinge of envy, “Son, this is your great, great grandfather!” In Hawaii…. It just blew my mind that there was a cemetery with that much history in it, and yet I couldn’t even tell him where part of my family is from.

The not knowing must drive adoptees crazy. It drives me crazy yet I’m not adopted.

Little by little the puzzle piece is coming together. I discovered I’m 95% Eastern European, and interestedly enough, more Eastern European than the people who live there today! The DNA test couldn’t really narrow down the region by much at all. Maybe in a few years there will be more data, but not now. The test said I have traces of ancestry from the Iberian peninsula (France and Spain!), Eastern European Jewish diaspora, the Middle East, and western Asia. Now I know where I get my eyes.

Ancestry.com also does a DNA match with other people who have taken the test and it explains what kind of cousin relationship you have. That’s been interesting, if only because it has put me in touch with people who know a little more about my family tree than I do. We are related, somehow…we just need to figure it out.

Through all of this, I’ve been able to decipher that Galicia was a kingdom at one time, covering a region that is Poland, Ukraine, and Slovakia today. And distant family members with more knowledge than I have know the names of the ridiculously small villages where my maternal grandparents are from! I’m going to trust this information for now because what I’ve learned fits the puzzle I am putting together. These towns are in present day Poland. I’m Polish! I’m 50 years old and discovered just this week that I am Polish.

Like I said, it’s not like I’ve researched church records to figure this out, and I learned that my maternal grandmother’s village was destroyed in the war so I’m not ever going to get church records. But I have village names, and thanks to the power of Google maps, I can pull up these tiny villages on a map, and look at pictures from these places. Pictures that feature Orthodox churches and cemeteries where I get chills thinking that my ancestors are buried there.


The church in Wolowiec, Poland, a village of 30 where my maternal grandfather is from.

Many years ago I heard a most beautiful description of family that explained that the veil separating the living and dead is a myth. There is an unbroken silk thread that runs from those who have passed to those of us living, creating a tapestry that the living continue to weave today. We can’t see the tapestry already woven, nor can we predict how the weave will change going forward. We can’t begin to understand how intricate and beautiful the weave is but it is undoubtedly there with an invisible, silken thread, spun through time.

Now I know my tapestry, and that of my kids, traveled to present-day Slovakia and Poland. I need to visit. I need to lay flowers at the graves of my ancestors, John and Anastasiae, and Janos and Anastasia. I can’t believe I know their names.


Globe image courtesy of Duongphorn Wiriya on Unsplash.com. Church image courtesy of Wikipedia Poland.







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